I have spent each morning last week on the picket line listening to members of CUPE 441 and Saanich teachers.
In Question Period, I asked the Education Minister about the labour disruption in School District #63 and have subsequently written him a letter seeking further clarification with respect to his responses.
There is a great deal of complexity in this situation, many moving parts and a lot of words flying around. The words are creating confusion about what is actually the problem. The longer students, teachers and support staff are out of the classroom, the more frustration grows.
Advocating for quality education
This is the first labour disruption I have faced in my time as an MLA. Yet another learning curve. My role is to advocate on behalf of the public education system. Our children, my child, is caught in the middle of this dispute. Families in our community are deeply impacted each and every day the schools are shuttered.
From what I have heard while on the line is that the support staff in the Saanich schools are on strike, and the teachers stand side-by-side in support, because the wage disparity is eroding the quality of public education in our district. It is impacting our children every day they are in school.
First, a little background. The wage disparity between support staff in Saanich and the neighbouring districts in Victoria and Sooke is the problem. Rooted in a decision made decades ago, the union local opted to negotiate better benefits rather than wages. This decision set Saanich on this course.
As it turns out, sometime later the benefits package was harmonized with the neighbouring districts but the wages were not. There is now a situation where support staff in Saanich are making up to several dollars less than what their counterparts in neighbouring districts make for doing exactly the same work. Saanich is at a competitive disadvantage and make no mistake it is being felt in the classroom.
Saanich at a competitive disadvantage
With three districts in the Capital Region, support staff do not have to go far to get a substantial raise. If they are willing to move further up Island the wages are even higher and the cost of living lower. Support staff are making this choice. As a result, Saanich has a growing recruitment and retention problem.
There is no doubt that the disruption families have felt over the past week has been problematic. However, there is an even deeper issue we need to be aware of. The decisions that school administrators have to make daily when educational assistants decide to leave the district or get sick and need a day off is negatively impacting the quality of our children’s education. This needs to be fixed.
The provincial government’s negotiating framework, the sustainable services mandate to cap wage increases at 2% over each of the next three years is a framework that a fiscally responsible government creates in order to manage hundreds of thousands of public sector workers.
Unfortunately, such a framework does not remedy a wage gap between workers; it only exacerbates it. A 2% annual increase on $20 is different than a 2% increase on $25. Continue to apply that formula over numerous contracts, as has happened in the Capital Region, and you create the situation that has Saanich schools behind a picket line. The support staff are looking for other employment options and in some cases the option is only a few minutes down the road.
We need to get our students back in the classroom. However, I fear sending them back to the current situation for the problem only to grow for another three years is not in our interest as parents or in the interest of our children.
Status quo impacting our children every day
From what I have heard on the picket line, there are only four or five on-call education assistants in the whole district. School administrators are forced to make decisions about which students who need extra support get it and which students will fend for themselves. This hurts our children who need extra support and all of their classmates. This situation puts pressure on our teachers and administrators to make awful decisions that nobody should be put in a position to make.
If School District #63 and CUPE 441 can fix this disparity within the sustainable services mandate as the Education Minister claims, then perhaps this strike will be limited. I heard him express excitement on the CBC that both sides want to get back to the bargaining table. They are in fact at the table this weekend.
While I am eager to get my child back into the classroom, my eagerness dissipates if the status quo is allowed to remain. It’s hollowing out the classroom, the schools, the District and the quality of public education. So if those at the bargaining table cannot resolve this deeper challenge with the tools given them by the Ministry, then perhaps the Education Minister is going to need to use other tools available to him to remedy the disparity.
I’ve heard the voices of many of my peers clearly state the unfairness of burdening our children with this strike. I agree. However, I believe it is even more unfair to burden them with conditions in the schools we send them to daily. It’s those conditions that I hope the Education Minister ensures is remedied.